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The Importance of Classical Training in a Contemporary World

By Kristen Stevens

When people think of a classically trained singer, a few stereo-types may come to mind: perhaps a squawky, square, musician with an ego the size of Texas? As a music educator who has undergone classical training through the college program, studied various styles and genres, as well as having performed most of them; I am convinced that a classical technique is the way to succeed in any genre. Much like the classically trained dancer can transfer their control of the body to move in the way that is called for in modern dance, we find that it is the modern dancer who cannot strap on a pair of pointe shoes and execute the moves required of a ballerina. Like the classical dancer, the classical singer has the ability to transfer their vocal technique to whatever genre or style is requested. Classical singer Kathleen Battle sings the jazz piece, Summertime, by Gershwin.

My experience is rooted in both contemporary and classical tradition. When asked to perform for various events, my voice must be malleable enough to sing with correct stylistic inflection and genuine sound, all of the music that is requested of me; I can do this with ease due to my classical training. Unfortunately, it is rare for the contemporary singer to transfer their technique to suit the classical style, and sometimes their technique is so limited that it may even restrict them to a singular style of music. Even the most talented contemporary performers struggle to maintain stylistic correctness when attempting to sing in the classical style.

TECHNICAL AND STYLISTIC DIFFERENCES

The ear can easily distinguish that there are major differences between the genres, however most people who have not been formally trained in music have difficulty putting into words the differences that the ear identifies. Below we will sample some of the various differences and also go into a little bit of why things are done the way that they are.

Electronic Amplification and Enhancement

One of the most noticeable differences between the classical singer and the contemporary singer is the use of electronic equipment to amplify and enhance the sound of the voice. The classical singer rarely uses a microphone or any other electronic enhancers due to the training, placement, and technique to which they associate themselves. Most of the time if a microphone/ microphones are seen at a performance, it is usually for recording purposes rather than amplification. However, due to the growing size of performance venues, it is slowly becoming more acceptable to use the microphone for very large arenas and outdoor events. It is also very challenging for audio engineers/ sound crews to obtain a good sound for the singer because the music, opera or art song, will often call for extreme and sometimes terraced dynamics (rapid shifts between extremely soft and extremely loud sound,) it is also difficult to attain a good tone without the singer sounding too brassy or pointed. This type of voice is typically best appreciated while being at least 20 feet from the singer.

Contemporary vocalists often rely heavily on electronic amplification. This is primarily due to the placement and intonation of the sound, also the use of amplified instruments contributes to the need for balance between vocalists and instrumentalists. (Before I make the following statement, please understand that I realize that there are very talented contemporary vocalists in the world, unfortunately, they are rarely the ones heard on the radio.) Contemporary artists often use vocal enhancement and auto tuners to correct their vocal faults, thus creating the studio recording, which is then cleaned up and processed to create the product you hear on the radio or other portable music device. This is why people can sometimes disappointed when they hear their favorite band/ artist performer live shows or acoustic sets.

 

Diction

A huge difference that you will notice between Classical and Contemporary is each entity’s use of diction. In contemporary music, the language is more often conversational, unlike classical that often employs long, legato stretches of words running into another, separated by sometimes harsh consonants. The Contemporary singer’s vowels are also sometimes modified to create some quirky effect or idiom that is used to depict some emotion( i.e.; the word “hair” pronounced “hayyyer”), also the moving to the second sound of the dipthong (two vowel sounds that occur in a single syllable, unseparated by a consonant) sooner than would be used in normal conversation (i.e.; the word “life” pronounced “lieeef”.)

In classical singing, as aforementioned, there are typically crisp sounding consonants, this is due to the lack of electronic amplification. The singer uses the consonants to cut through the sound of the orchestra or accompanying instruments, in order that the language may be identified as well as understood. The classical singer strives to sing on the vowel rather than the consonant, and often procrastinates the phonation of the second sound of the dipthong; this is the standard unless otherwise instructed in the musical score. The classical singer also reads both the music and the International Phoenetic Alphabet (IPA) in order to ensure correct pronunciation of the various languages in which they may be required to sing.

Languages

It is required that the classical singer perform in multiple languages in order to provide authentic, period replication of the composer’s original design. The singer will often take courses that explain the various symbols that are used to express the phonemes (the smallest units of speech sound) to which they are associated (i.e.; a classical singer will read [i] in the IPA transcription, and to them it means to pronounce the vowel “e” as in “me” or perhaps they will read the symbol [ǝ] and pronounce it “uh” as in “caramel.”) In addition to correct pronunciation, the singer must also research the word for word translation as well as the poetic translation in order to allow for proper inflection of the text. This is probably just as crucial as the correct pronunciation, because often the audience will not understand the language, and therefore rely on the artist to express the emotive of the piece through facial expression and bodily gestures.

In the contemporary tradition, songs are typically sung in the vernacular, unless the song is meant for multi-cultural audiences, in which case, some singers will perform part of the concert, album, etc. in a particular language, then shift towards another language for a different portion of the set. Singing in the vernacular allows for the performer to focus more on the inflection and less on the language. What is common in both styles is that the music and words should be memorized before public performance is pursued.

Vibrato

Vibrato is the oscillation or vibration superimposed on a sustained pitch. It is often described as the glistening, quivering, or fluttering quality of a particular voice, and naturally occurs to some extent in any healthy voice. In classical singing, the vibrato is onset immediately after the consonant, and remains consistent throughout. The exception is if the singer is performing a Renaissance or Baroque period work, in which case, a pure tone may be more stylistically correct. Vibrato is a key component of intonation and overall performance for the classical singer.

The contemporary singer also employs the use of vibrato, although because the music is more conversational, the vibrato is typically reserved for ornamenting the end of sustained notes. However, there are occasions that the contemporary singer uses vibrato more frequently, it is usually very subtle and can be used dramatically during the softer portions of the song to ensure a core sound, rather than an airy sound, while maintaining the desired dynamic.

In this video, instructor Kerri Ho describes techniques frequently used to develop consistent vibrato.

Registers

In classical singing, the voice must sound as a singular entity, with seamless transitions between the registers. With countless hours of practice and methodology prodding us, pulling us, pushing us, Julia Child-ing us through the passagio (transition point between registers) to create a seamless transition, the classical singer strives for the singularity of sound that comes when the resonant spaces are balanced and there is access to both upper and lower registers. Essentially this means that they strive to keep the voice sounding like it belongs to the same person in any register that they are singing (i.e.; not sounding like Idina Minzel while in the chest voice, then sounding like Paris Hilton in the head voice.)

In contemporary, there is much less emphasis on a seamless passagio, often the chest voice is carried to the extreme creating the sound referred to as “belting.” It is not uncommon for a singer to have a strong chest voice, but then make a noticeable leap up to the light, less focused sound of the head voice. However, when a contemporary singer cleanly goes through the passagio, people notice how talented these individuals are to have such a “strong and wide” range. The “break” (I hate this term because nothing in your voice is actually broken, but rather refers to the end of a certain register) in the registers is sometimes used by contemporary artists to create dramatic effect.

Resonant Spaces

The human body contains its own resonant spaces that allow the vibrations from the vocal fold to manifest and amplify the sound produced. The body contains four main resonant chambers that every singer should know about: head, mouth, nasal, and chest. These should not be confused with registers. These are the spaces that assist in creating a certain loudness without straining the voice.

In classical music, the objective is to create as much space as possible in all of the available resonant space. The only space that is not used in classical singing is the mouth resonance, primarily due to the soft tissue (jaws and tongue) that acts as a sound absorbing entity. The act of creating space is achieved by lowering the larynx and raising the soft palate in order to have full access to the other three resonators. The proper use of these resonant spaces result in the classical singer’s independence from amplification devices.

The contemporary genres each use resonant spaces differently. In popular music, the performer often sings with the mouth resonance, or the speaking resonance, because the music tends to be conversational. In music theatre, the placement tends to lie in the nasal/mask resonance, and has a very forward sound. Rock, alternative, rhythm and blues, and jazz all rely heavily on the microphone, as does popular music and similarly, resonation is not as emphasized, although a good balance is desirable.

Music Reading

Music reading is required of the classical singer, not only music reading (knowing that the second space of the treble, or G staff is an A), but it is expected that the classical singer be able to sight read music (sing what the page directs without a pervious hearing). The reason I find music reading to be such an important part of any musician’s training, is because you, the artist, rely on yourself to create and interpret the music, and do not have to rely on someone else’s interpretation.

Some contemporary singers read music, this is usually the result of the public school music program or music studio that pushes music reading as part of its curriculum. Usually contemporary singers understand the basic elements of music reading, however, unless they are composing their own music, it is not stressed and rarely is it appreciated. Although music reading is essential, development and practice of audiation (or inner hearing) must be learned as well or the music reading will not benefit the singer. Sometimes, in order to compensate for lack of skill in music reading, contemporary singers may rely more heavily on the hearing to learn the music, but generally can often can improvise and ad lib with ease.

TECHNIQUE TRANSFER

It may come as a surprise that I am often required to sing contemporary music. I also must admit that prior to collegiate singing, I had not had any classical training, making music school that much more challenging. Prior to my college experience, I had frequently led worship for my church and done a few gigs with some friends singing some alternative/rock music, and yes, I did EVERYTHING WRONG: I didn’t even know I had an upper register- it was all chest voice. Needless to say, my first semester of private voice was quite the struggle. However after my technique was solid, I was able to transfer the concepts of classical vocal singing into my contemporary style of music, and much to my surprise, I sounded much better. For me, the benefits of classical training manifested themselves in other genres in addition to the classical repertoire. The contemporary singing benefits included: a widened range, which meant I could sing a wider variety of music, correct singing throughout the different registers for extended periods of time without fatigue or tension in my neck as a result of faulty technique.

I also thought I would include a few truths that every singer, classical or contemporary, must come to terms with, if they are to become a successful, independent musician.

  • You will not (and should not) sound like the artist who has made your repertoire famous. You need to be comfortable enough with your own unique sound, and you need to make that sound happen to the best of your ability every time you sing. It is always a good idea to record your lessons and compare yourself to yourself at an earlier stage, and assess your performance based on your own improvement.
  • Reading the sheet music is important. This is an invaluable skill to have because it makes you an independent musician. Have you ever seen a piece of paper that has been copied, and re-copied? It gets more and more blurry with each copy- in a sense, that is what happens to music when we do not obtain the musical data for ourselves- we listen to someone else’s interpretation- or a copy, therefore all we can hope to attain by this is a slightly more distorted image of the concept the composer was originally trying to convey. In contemporary music lib. is acceptable, but before crafting a variation, you need to know the theme, and that knowledge is obtained on the page.
  • You must know the stylistic traits of the genre you are singing. I know this may seem like a no-brainer, but listen to the top performers of the genre and observe the style traits that they display. In what time period was this written? Do they do frequent “runs” or unwritten ornamentation? Do they lib., if so, when is it stylistically appropriate to do so? Do they alter their diction? Do they use non-word syllables? Do they sing, or speak rhythmically on pitch? It is important to listen critically to the music to determine what makes the genre different from another.

Transitioning from a non-classical background into the classical training, I have found that it is most beneficial to learn the classical method. If you decide that music is your desired occupation, the most common music program that you will encounter at the collegiate level requires some degree of classical training, most of your classmates will have had this experience to some extent either through UIL, all-state solo competitions, and some may even compete at the National Association of Teachers of Singers (NATS) competitions. I recommend classical training because it equips the singer with the essentials to be successful on their musical journey by providing: music reading skills, ear training, versatile technique, and most importantly, the independence to sing whatever make them happy.

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